Updated: Apr 25, 2019
On March 21, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Improving Free Inquiry, Transparency, and Accountability at Colleges and Universities.” The order declares that “it is the policy of the [US] Federal Government to… encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate.” The order continues that “[t]o advance this policy… heads of covered agencies [(listed in the order)] shall … take appropriate steps… to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry” (emphasis added).
The clear suggestion is that government agencies will condition future research grants on an unspecified future assessment of free inquiry, as determined by the state. This is a bad idea. It is bad for research, as it would give priority over the quality of research proposals to bureaucratic determinations made by political appointees on unrelated matters. It is bad for institutions, because even though the order will certainly be challenged in court, properly risk-averse institutions can be expected to warp their practices to avoid censure, however undeserved. It is bad for free inquiry because, as I said in remarks last month in Berlin“accepting the agency of… public officials or others outside of the higher education sector” to define academic freedom “will always result in a diminished scope of academic inquiry.” Most important, it is bad for society, because, as I continued in Berlin, “the fight over the definition of academic freedom is the same as saying the fight over the definition of the university itself; which is the same as saying the fight over the definition and nature of the societies we choose to build and live in.”
Of course, saying that the executive order is a bad idea is not to say that higher education institutions are not accountable or that they have no responsibilities in the area of promoting open, engaging and diverse debate. Of course they do, as do their scholars, students, staff and stakeholders. How they might do so, and how they might respond to the types of incidents that ostensibly inspired the executive order, are the subjects of the free, online course Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters, which starts again on April 15th, and the accompanying SAR publications, Promoting Higher Education Values: A Guide for Discussion and Workshop Supplement. In lieu of some as yet underdetermined government test of free inquiry, wouldn’t it be great if institutions might voluntarily encourage all their faculty, students, staff and stakeholders to review and discuss these or similar materials? Now that would promote open, engaging and diverse debate…
Thanks for all you do in support of these important issues.
Rob Quinn Executive Director
Scholars at Risk